A few years ago George Kent and I had a conversation on compassion. George views “caring as broader than compassion, since compassion is usually viewed as a response to suffering.” Caring, George remarked has much more applicability than compassion. Compassion is only called into being when there is suffering, when things are not going well, “Caring is part of everyday common behavior.” Caring, George noted, can be developed and called into place in every moment, in every situation in life.
George is a Professor Emeritus from the University of Hawaii, having retired from his position at the Department of Political Science in 2010. He currently teaches an online course on the Human Right to Adequate Food as an Adjunct Professor with the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Sydney in Australia and also with the Transformative Social Change Specialization at Saybrook University in California. George has been writing books, lecturing and working within global health organization’s analyzing the conditions of child abuse in the world and hunger being a major source.
Last week in the Sydney western suburbs of Merrylands, George Kent and a panel of experts co-created a Conversations On Compassion event called, ‘Caring About Hunger’. Holistic Practices Beyond Borders, Together For Humanity and Religion of Peace, teamed up to offer an open public forum to share the space between experts and audience.
Fayez Nour from Holistic Practices Beyond Borders, opened the event with an acknowledgment of the traditional custodians of this land, the Darug people, and a preparation for the context of the speakers: “Conversation doesn’t just reshuffle the cards; it creates new cards, and it involves being willing to emerge a slightly different person“.
George Kent wrote a chapter in Conversations on Compassion titled On Caring. The forum held at Merrylands was an opportunity to bring together, George Kent’s perspective, along with a panel including Shaykh Soner Coruhlu, Reverend Father Shenouda Mansour and Michelle Brenner conflict resolution consultant.
The evening buzz indicated that the mix of academic insight and religious perspectives was very satisfying and elucidating. In this article I will try to bring you into the room, so you can be an absent observer.
“Caring”, George defined is “the act of benefiting others, referring to the action itself or the motivation for the action.” It was important for George to clarify the distinction between caring, exploitation and indifference. “Exploitation occurs when others take much of the value produced by your labor, and don’t care about your well-being. Indifference is what you experience when others don’t care about your well-being”
Thinking about what is care, what do we care about and what impact this has on others around us as well as those invisible to us was brought into awareness. “What is the meaning of caring about inanimate objects and about people distant from us in time and space?“ The challenge of caring was brought into sharp focus through examination of the massive problem of hunger in the world. A sense of the scale of the problem was conveyed by George’s pointing out that over three million children under five died each year partly because of malnutrition, while armed conflict results in less than 200,000 deaths each year.
George pointed out : “Hunger occurs in a social context. The extent to which people suffer from hunger depends on how they treat one another” Hunger, George brought out, is a social concern, a structural social conflict, it is not an isolated individual problem. It is not that there is not enough food to go around or even there is not the capacity to move food from one place of abundance to a place of scarcity. “Hunger is not simply a problem of individuals. It reflects huge ongoing failures in the social order. Hunger is not due to an inadequate supply of food in the world. Put simply, widespread and persistent hunger in the world is not due to any deficiency in global resources. It is due to the fact that people and agencies do not care enough about one another’s well being.”
In preparation for the ‘Caring About Hunger’ event, I rang The Exodus Foundation, a registered charity that combats disadvantage in its many forms – by providing food and social health and wellbeing services without discrimination to those who need it most. I was looking for a speaker to be on the panel. Reverend Bill Crews, the founder of the Exodus Foundation had to attend an event at Parliament House, Canberra at that time but he rang to tell me how much he would like to meet with George despite his inability to be part of the event. Bill went on to say how his work beginning with the Exodus Foundation had extended now all over the world via The Bill Crews Charitable Trust, helping in countries wherever it is needed, and their latest efforts are now in Europe with the refugees. Bill said, “George is right - the biggest problem I have found is not the lack of food or the technology for moving it but keeping the institutions and people caring.”
What George identified in his talk was the reality that the ‘food industry is now a wealth industry as opposed to a health industry.”
Rabbi Zalman Kastel facilitated the panel that followed George Kents’ presentation. The first to speak on the panel was Sheyk Soner Coruhlu a Lecturer at Auburn Gallipoli Mosque and Blacktown Mosque and former host of the "Voice of Islam: Way to Peace" radio program. Sheyk Soner has a Master’s Degree in Computer Science, an MBA and is currently undertaking a Masters in Islamic Theology and a Doctorate in Business Management.
Sheyk Soner offered us an Islamic understanding of the role of a Muslim in society.
” It is a responsibility, an obligation to feed others, to give out to others. It is part of the expectation of what a person is, one who provides for others.”
“In Islam, the act of doing something charitable is always related to the metaphysical alongside the physical. The transactional style of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) would include the otherwordly benefits by molding a Muslim's perspective and psychology to incorporate a spiritual outlook. For example, The prophet's wife was once asked to distribute the meat of an animal to the poor and when the Prophet asked his wife if the meat was distributed she confirmed and said “ all was given away to the poor and one small part was kept for us”. He responded and said, “what you have actually done is given away the small part and kept the rest for us. “Meaning, the spiritual benefit was of priority, giving away the physical meant the acquiring of it on a spiritual realm.
In the Qur'an we are warned about the importance of encouraging others to feed the poor, needy, and destitute. One does not attain spiritual excellence by simply feeding the poor, one must also encourage and motivate others to do so . Salvation in Islam is centered around the belief in One God and the well being of all creatures.”
In my comments as the next speaker on the panel, I explained that I have been researching and writing about the compassion revolution that is quietly taking place in the world. My interest is drawn from my work as a mediator and conflict resolution consultant working within government as well as the workplace and community sector. I presented the perspective of neuroscience that is shining a light of hope and plasticity on the capacity of people and thus society to change. Drawing on Social Neuroscientist Tania Singer , I explained that in a healthy person there are two distinctive pathways that operate in the brain, feeling empathy for another and reflecting on the perspective within the thinking of the other. These separate pathways work together impacting and interacting to create a holistic picture of ‘the other’. However when they are not working together with the intention of understanding the ‘being of the other’, then there can be a lack of caring.
I mentioned that traditional economic theory focuses only on the motivational system of consumption as an economic drive which creates for society a behavior and a strong attraction to self interest. However with the inclusion of social neuroscience and psychological economic research , there is recognition that economic theory is broader than just a consumption system for society. When care is seen as a motivational drive it creates a society that is pro –social, a different behavior en masse. In fact there are now nudging units relating to many of the economic government departments around the world, working on social change within the world of economics. It brings to mind the capacity for economic modeling to shift towards including a caring model in the market place.
With only 5 minutes allocated to each of the panel the taste that there is more to reveal was recognized. The audience participation was limited until after the panel offered their perspectives. Each panel speaker was chosen because of their commitment to both the study and practice of their respective perspectives. Caring and especially caring about hunger, has traditionally been seen as a charity concern, hence the value in having the perspectives from a variety of religious leaders at the event. Reverend Father Shenouda provided a Christian perspective.
Reverend Father Shenouda Mansour is founding director of Coptic Orthodox Community Outreach Service (COCOS) and runs a free food kitchen in both Parramatta and Woolloomooloo. Father told us, “On one occasion, I pointed to a man standing in line to receive a hot meal, and said, “God loves you”. The man responded, “I know God loves me”. Father Shenouda continued the story and asked him, “Man, how do you know?”, and the man responded, “By this food on this plate!” Father Shenouda recounted another story relating to the start of his free food kitchen in Woolloomooloo. “A Muslim man approached me and asked,“…is it alright for me to come here, for I am a Muslim? I responded by saying, We are brothers!” “
Quoting from the Christian Bible Father Shenouda shared the Christian teachings that indicate that every person is born in the image of g-d, thus deserving to be treated with dignity, to be engaged with respect and to be seen as belonging to the one human family.
“For I was hungry, and you fed me. I was thirsty, and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger, and you invited me into your home. I was naked, and you gave me clothing. I was sick, and you cared for me. I was in prison, and you visited me.”’
“Then these righteous ones will reply, ‘Lord, when did we ever see you hungry and feed you? Or thirsty and give you something to drink? Or a stranger and show you hospitality? Or naked and give you clothing? When did we ever see you sick or in prison and visit you?’
“And the King will say, ‘I tell you the truth, when you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were doing it to me!’
In the midst of Reverend Father Shenoudas’ talk, there was an incident that indicated how caring includes instinctive feelings and the necessary leaping that is involved in perspective taking. A large group of the audience started to file out of the room. Facilitator Rabbi Zalman Kastel then interjected by announcing the need for the Muslim prayer time and as this relates directly to the sun setting there was not the option to wait until after the event. The prayers could not be put off any longer. It was in this context that caring replaced cultural criticism. Those still left seated in the hall were then invited into the conversation, to offer their thoughts. The passion of concern was voiced around the power of group force, whether the force be the consumerism or the potential force of social caring. This wasn’t a theoretical conversation, it was clearly apparent that the panel was putting into words the lived experiences that the audience was relating to.Father resumed his perspective and reminded people that feeding the hungry had no discrimination save being hungry.
The conversation was then opened up to the audience inviting questions, thoughts and reflective statements that could add more cards to the field. One voice wanted to hear the Jewish perspective as Rabbi Zalman Kastel who is the director for Together For Humanity, was in the role of facilitator so had not shared a perspective. What came to light was the obvious similarities between the Jewish the Muslim and Christian in relation to caring about hunger.
There were common known themes such as giving to the poor. However in this context, with the opportunity for a focused attention on the religious perspective on caring about hunger, a deeper understanding came forth. It came to light that the sense of justice, the justice of meeting needs is seen as a human obligation. When a person has something in their pocket, this something is not only for the benefit and consumption of the person holding it. Rather there is an obligation of dispensing, of giving out, or bringing to others who do not have. This obligation is different from the perception of giving the ‘left over’. It became clear from the language understood by all of the clergy, Rabbi Zalman Kastel, Sheyk Soner Coruhlu and Reverend Father Shenouda, that justice means caring, that needs being met creates a form of balance. Imbalance, hunger, is experienced when needs are not met. Balance and justice are for the human being to consider and concern oneself with. Caring about hunger is therefore a requirement for a just society.
A question was then asked, “If religions are concerned traditionally with caring, then why when church and state was unified, which was for quite a time in our world history, why has there been and still is such a wide gap between the knowing of being caring and the actual experience of living in a caring society.”
Sheyk Soner answered by identifying a time in the Islamic history when there was no hunger in the land. In fact it became hard to fulfill the obligation to feed the hungry, to give to the poor, so people were instructed to go beyond their homeland to find others outside the region in order to fulfill the obligation of justice.
The question however lingered on.
This Conversation on Compassion; Caring About Hunger held at Merrylands was one step on the journey of breaking down social distance. It not only brought together the expert perspectives from the study of hunger, the Jewish world, the Muslim world, the Christian world and the conflict resolution world, it brought together participants form a far afield as Canberra, the Eastern Suburbs, the Southern Shire as well as the North Shore, Western suburbs and the inner city as well as the diversity of world views from students, professionals and various areas of interests. Bringing diverse worldviews together offers an opportunity for thinking beyond the parameters of one’s own limited perspective. Hunger is a social structural conflict that is not based on not enough food, or geographical isolation, it is due to a lack of caring. George Kent has brought this to our attention, now where to from here?
Thank you to Ron Johnson, for bringing George Kent to Merrylands, for all the support and co-operation from members of Holistic Practices Beyond Borders, Together For Humanity and Religion of Peace.